North Korea is once again facing high rates of hunger and malnutrition. The government announced through its state-run newspaper that its citizens must once again embark on "an arduous march," a phrase coined by the government a quarter-century ago when famine killed an estimated 3.5 million people.
"The road to revolution is long and arduous," said an editorial in the state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper, reported The Telegraph. "We may have to go on an arduous march, during which we will have to chew the roots of plants once again."
It is a stark reminder of the fact that famine and hunger are politically-caused problems. Even when drought strikes, there is generally enough food in a country or region to nourish those affected. Problems start when policies by governments affect food prices and/or access.
In the case of North Korea, isolationist polcies make it difficult for aid groups to provide assistance and cut the country off from potential trade partners. The threats of violence and missile tests are also forcing the international community to apply sanctions on the country, making things worse for the government which then passes the burden onto citizens.
The country is one of many struggling amid bad rains due to El Nino over the past 12 months. Food production fell by roughly 20 percent in 2015 from 2014 levels and this has led to food ration reductions by the government. UNICEF made a request for $18 million for 2016 to support some 25,000 children suffering from malnutrition right now.
“The severe drought last year reduced food production and children’s access to safe, clean water,” said UNICEF’s representative in North Korea, Timothy Schaffter, to the Guardian in January. “Without safe water, children are at greater risk of diarrhoea, which is a leading cause of malnutrition and death. We have reports of a 72 percent increase in diarrhoea among children under five in the most severely drought-affected provinces."
Seminal Indian economist Amartya Sen made the famous remark that,''No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy." There are disagreemtns over whether he is right about the power of democracy, but there is little refuting Sen's basic idea that well-functioning countries can avert famine. It is why, for example, Ethiopia fared far better than Somalia during the 2010 Horn of Africa famine.
Unfortunately for North Koreans, there is not much hope that enough assistance can be provided if the economy worsens and crops continue to fail. I'd be remiss not to point out that it is possible to carry this logic further for countries like the United States, where famine is not a worry but hunger remains a problem for millions.
A strong safety net could help end hunger entirely in the country. But the situation in North Korea serves as an important reminder that humanitarian assistance is a way to alleviate crises, while functiong governments that support citizens are the best way to prevent deadly hunger.